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How parents unwittingly damage their children’s body image

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Parents are unwittingly damaging their child’s body image through their own language and behaviour, an expert has explained. 

Dr Phillippa Diedrichs, a professor in psychology at the University of the West of England, told how children shape their own views on body image based on what they see, hear and learn from their parents. 

‘For example, if parents make negative comments about their own bodies or engage in unhealthy dieting behaviours because their worried about their appearance, their children are more likely to experience body image concerns,’ Dr Diedrichs explained in an interview with FEMAIL. 

Delicate balance: Parents are unwittingly damaging their child's body image through their own language and behaviour, an expert has explained. Stock image

Delicate balance: Parents are unwittingly damaging their child's body image through their own language and behaviour, an expert has explained. Stock image

Delicate balance: Parents are unwittingly damaging their child’s body image through their own language and behaviour, an expert has explained. Stock image

Fortunately there are steps all parents can take to nurture better body image in their children, whether that is quitting their own self-criticism, or helping their child to better understand the artifice of social media. 

Dr Diedrichs, who is working with Dove’s Self-Esteem Project and Girls Room, their collaboration with Lena Waithe, also highlighted the importance of parents and schools using evidence-based resources to support children.  

The damaging things you do as a parent (and don’t realise)

Dr Diedrichs said: ‘Multiple studies show that parents can influence their children’s body image through modelling negative body image and commentary on their child’s appearance. 

Start by saying 5 things you like about yourself 

Dr Diedrichs said: ‘Standing in front of the mirror and practicing saying five things you like about your body and five things you like about your internal qualities can also boost body confidence.’ 

‘For example, if parents make negative comments about their own bodies or engage in unhealthy dieting behaviours because their worried about their appearance, their children are more likely to experience body image concerns. 

‘Similarly, if parents frequently make comments about their children’s appearance, or put pressure on them to look a certain way, it can have a negative impact on their body image.’

Steps you can take to boost their body image

BE KIND TO YOURSELF

‘A good place to start is ourselves,’ Dr Diedrichs said. ‘If parents develop acceptance and respect for their own bodies, this is likely to transmit and benefit their children’s body image. 

‘This could include avoiding making negative comments about their and others’ appearance.’

LOOK BEHIND THE ‘PERFECT’ PICTURE

Dr Diedrichs explained that helping children to think critically about unrealistic social media images is important in improving body image. 

She continued: ‘Having conversations with children about why media images are created in a certain way (e.g., with teams of stylists, special lighting, digital retouching, filters, taking dozens of photos to get the right angle) and why they are not a realistic source to compare ourselves to, can also help to develop media literacy among children and subsequently improved their body image.’

If your child is suffering from poor body image, Dr Diedrichs advises providing them with 'evidence-based resources' that they can watch or read in their own time. Stock image

If your child is suffering from poor body image, Dr Diedrichs advises providing them with 'evidence-based resources' that they can watch or read in their own time. Stock image

If your child is suffering from poor body image, Dr Diedrichs advises providing them with ‘evidence-based resources’ that they can watch or read in their own time. Stock image

SEEK OUT THE POSITIVE SIDE OF SOCIAL MEDIA

Dr Diedrichs said: ‘Studies show that social media can be a negative and positive influence on body image, depending on the type of content young people consume and what they use it for. 

‘For example, viewing content that focuses on self-compassion and being kind to ourselves and accounts that display a range of diverse appearances can be beneficial. Alternatively, content that focuses on fitspiration, healthy eating trends, celebrities and models can have a negative impact on body image.

‘It’s important to curate a feed that showcases diversity, makes you feel good and reflects people who are inspiring for their intellect and what they do (not just their looks), rather than following accounts that prompt you to compare yourself to others or to feel inadequate.’

THINK ABOUT THE BODY AS AN INSTRUMENT 

‘A key strategy to developing positive body image is to start thinking about your body as an instrument that moves you through life and helps you engage with the world, rather than just being an object to be looked at and scrutinised by yourself and others,’ Dr Diedrichs said.

‘So focusing on appreciating what your body allows you to DO, rather than how it looks, can be a good strategy to improve body image.’ 

DON’T SHY AWAY FROM SCIENCE 

If your child is suffering from poor body image, Dr Diedrichs advises providing them with ‘evidence-based resources’ that they can watch or read in their own time. 

She recommended resources from Dove’s Self-Esteem Project, which provides educational tools, such as an e-book and even cartoons, that are designed to address key influences on young people’s body image in a way that is proven through academic research to be effective.   

WORK WITH SCHOOLS 

I would also encourage parents to ask their child’s school to make use of the free evidence-based body image lesson plans that are available to teachers to help them create a positive environment and address any challenges with peers. 

Finally, make sure they know that there are free support lines, like ChildLine and Mind, that they can call if they ever need to talk in an anonymous way to someone about their worries.

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